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Advanced Electronic Signatures

By Grant Christianson

Up until the recent past, where the law required a signature, statement or document
to be notarised, acknowledged, verified or made under oath, that requirement was
typically met only if the handwritten signature of the person authorised to perform
those acts was used. The goal of this requirement was to safeguard authenticity and
provide appropriate proof should a legal dispute arise at a later stage.

It is now possible to achieve the same end with a few simple keystrokes on a
computer, thanks to innovative software development and legislative recognition of
the rapidly changing manner in which business is done. The accreditation of
authentication products and services in terms of s 37 of the Electronic
Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 (ECT Act) allows for the electronic
signatures of such products and services to qualify as advanced electronic
signatures, thus safeguarding the authenticity of the signature.

Accreditation is done by the South African Accreditation Authority

(, which released accreditation regulations in 2007. These set out
the criteria, standards and processes to be followed by authentication and
certification providers (,
accessed 21-9-2012).

Useful definitions

An e-mail can be viewed, in law, as an original written communication; a data

message made up of data and compiled using a computer programme (eg Microsoft
Outlook). The following definitions from the ECT Act and the Copyright Act 98 of
1978 assist in understanding this better:

E-mail means a data message used or intended to be used as a mail message

between the originator and addressee in an electronic communication (s 1 of the
ECT Act).
Electronic communication means a communication by means of data messages (s
1 of the ECT Act).
Data message means data generated, sent, received or stored by electronic
means (s 1 of the ECT Act).
Data means electronic representations of information in any form (s 1 of the ECT
Computer programme means a set of instructions fixed or stored in any manner
and which, when used directly or indirectly in a computer, directs its operation to
bring about a result (s 1 of the Copyright Act). Computer programmes are also
referred to as software.

Further, the ECT Act provides:

Information is not without legal force and effect merely on the grounds that it is
wholly or partly in the form of a data message (s 11(1)).
A requirement in law that a document or information must be in writing is met if the
document or information is in the form of a data message and is accessible in a
manner usable for subsequent reference (s 12).
Where a law requires information to be presented or retained in its original form,
that requirement is met by a data message if certain requirements are met (s 14(1)).

Signatures, electronic signatures and advanced electronic signatures

Signature is defined as: A persons name written in a distinctive way as a form of

identification in authorising a document
(, accessed 219-2012). In law, this is not the only way a document can be signed: Any mark on a
document made by a person for the purpose of attesting the document, or identifying
it as his act, is his signature thereto (Putter v Provincial Insurance Co Ltd and
Another 1963 (3) SA 145 (W) at 148E).
An electronic signature is data attached to, incorporated in or logically associated
with other data and which is intended by the user to serve as a signature (s 1 of ECT
Act). An advanced electronic signature is an electronic signature that results from a
process that has been accredited by the Accreditation Authority (ss 1 and 37 of the
ECT Act).

Electronic signatures must be distinguished from advanced electronic signatures.

The important factor is whether the signature is required by law. While the ECT Act
recognises other forms of electronic signatures used between parties in an electronic
transaction (eg a private agreement), these will not be recognised if the signature is
required by law (eg signatures required in terms of the Companies Act 71 of 2008).

In this regard, the ECT Act provides:

An electronic signature is not without legal force and effect merely on the grounds
that it is in electronic form, and may be used by the parties to an electronic
transaction (s 13(2) and (3) read with the definition of transaction in s 1 of the ECT
Where the signature of a person is required by law and such law does not specify
the type of signature, that requirement in relation to a data message is met only if an
advanced electronic signature is used (s 13(1) of the ECT Act).

To belabour the point: While an advanced electronic signature is an electronic

signature, an electronic signature is not necessarily an advanced electronic
signature; the differentiator being whether or not there is accreditation by the
Accreditation Authority of the authentication products and services used to create the
electronic signature (s 13(2) and (3) of the ECT Act, read with the definition of
advanced electronic signature in s 1).

Digital certificates and public key infrastructure

Public key infrastructure (PKI) is a broad term that refers to public and private
key cryptography; the hardware, software, people, processes and policies
collectively implemented and used to manage risk when transacting electronically
(eg online or by e-mail). PKI includes the use of digital certificates to identify the
persons behind an electronic transaction (see ISO 21188:2006, Public key
infrastructure for financial services practices and policy framework, published
by the International Organization for Standardisation
707, accessed 21-9-2012), adherence thereto is required by the Accreditation
Authority in a s 37 of the ECT Act accreditation exercise).

Digital certificates are typically issued by certification service providers (note:

While the ECT Act refers to certification service providers, in the digital
certificate/encryption services industry these entities are generally known as
certificate/certification authorities or CAs).

Besides being used as a means of online access control (eg conveyancers logging
on to receive bond registration instructions from banks), a digital certificate can
also be used to create an electronic signature. If the digital certificate used to
create such electronic signature was issued by a certification service provider that
has had its authentication products and services accredited in terms of s 37 of the
ECT Act, the resultant electronic signature of the individual identified in the digital
certificate also qualifies as an advanced electronic signature (s 37 of the ECT Act,
read with the definition of advanced electronic signature in s 1).

The reasons for supporting the use of digital certificates originate from a
commercial perspective. The issues that arise when transacting online usually
have to do with how to create enforceable electronic contracts for the sale of
goods and services, or how to ensure that an electronic transaction will at least
be as legally enforceable and binding as a traditional paper-based transaction.
Usernames and passwords have been common means of seeking to achieve
this. However, there are instances when requiring the use of a username and a
password is simply too risky as these can be compromised by numerous means,
for example by wiretapping (covert monitoring of electronic communications),
phishing (masquerading as a trustworthy entity to obtain sensitive information),
keystroke logging (covert tracking of keys pressed on a computer keyboard),
social engineering (obtaining confidential data by manipulating and/or deceiving
people), dumpster diving (sifting through commercial data records), side-channel
attacks (exploiting data security weaknesses) and other software vulnerabilities.

Digital certificates, in a well-implemented PKI, go a long way towards managing risk

when communicating or transacting online, such as those presented by false
identity, fraud, unauthorised access, snooping/observation, message alteration and
transaction repudiation. A properly issued digital certificate is strong evidence in
support of proving the function of a signature in an electronic transaction, namely
the conveyance of an attestation by the person signing of his approval and authority
for what is contained in the document, and that it emanates from him (Jurgens and
Others v Volkskas Bank Ltd 1993 (1) SA 214 (A) at 220E F).
A certification service provider plays an important role in a PKI in that it
issues digital certificates;
sets policy (as stated in its certification practice statement (CPS), a statement
issued by a certification service provider to specify the practices that it employs in
generating and issuing digital certificates) on what identification a person must
produce in order to obtain a digital certificate; and
in order to maintain security, indicates in a published certificate revocation list
those digital certificates that are no longer valid (eg revoked, expired or

A digital certificate is an electronic form of identification, much like an identity

document, passport or drivers licence. Technically, it is
a strong method of authentication, which is likened to a cryptographic handshake
as opposed to a shared secret like a username and a password;
immune to phishing scams, keystroke loggers and the like;
the method of choice in web services development, as seen in computer
programming languages like SAML and XML; and
a roadmap for further use; that is, signing to preserve integrity of data messages,
transactions, e-mail, Adobe PDF, Microsoft Word and Excel documents; based on
the widely accepted X.509v3 format (an international telecommunications
standard), which means system and programme interoperability is almost

Digital certificates and the Companies Act

Section 6(12)(a) of the Companies Act provides: If a provision of this Act requires
a document to be signed or initialled
(a) by or on behalf of a person, that signing or initialling may be effected in any
manner provided for in the ECT Act .

Consider this in line with s 13(1) of the ECT Act. Also note that s 14 of the ECT Act
provides for originals to be in electronic form if certain integrity requirements are met.
The cryptography behind an advanced electronic signature makes it mathematically
infeasible to tamper with the document without showing evidence of tampering, for
example by sending a warning.

Section 51(1)(b) read with s 51(2) of the Act provides that a certificate evidencing
any certificated securities of a company may be signed by electronic means by
two persons authorised by the companys board (ie, electronic share certificates).
Also consider s 12(5): Signing reservation of name notice; s13(1): Signing a
memorandum of incorporation; s 30(3)(c): Signing annual financial statements; s
58(2)(a): Signing a proxy appointment; s 61(3): Signed demand for a shareholder
meeting (eg electronically signed e-mail using an issued digital certificate); s
73(8): Signed minutes of a board meeting; s 77(3)(a) and (d): Director liability as
a consequence of signing anything on behalf of a company; and s 101(5): Signed
Digital certificates and the magistrates courts rules
The updated magistrates courts rules provide in r 1 for signature to include
an advanced electronic signature as defined in the ECT Act, and provides
that this also applies to sign, signing and signed.

Other legislation

Other legislation also requires signatures and, in such instances, it is worth

considering the applicability of the ECT Act and the use of advanced electronic

However, there are instances when, in law, the use of an advanced electronic
signature is not permitted. The ECT Act envisages this and only allows the use of
advanced electronic signatures when the law does not specify the type of
signature required (s 13(1) of the ECT Act). For example, s 2 of the Wills Act 7 of
1953 provides that no executed will is valid unless signed at the end thereof by
the testator. Sign is defined in s 1 of the Wills Act to include the making of
initials and, only in the case of the testator, the making of a mark, and signature
has a corresponding meaning. (For information on other exclusions, see S Snail
Electronic contracting in South Africa e-contracts in S Papadopoulos & S Snail
(eds) Cyberlaw @ SA III: The law of the internet in South Africa (Pretoria: Van
Schaik 2012) at 51 Editor.)

Electronic notarisation, acknowledgment and certification under the ECT


Where a law requires a signature, statement or document to be notarised,

acknowledged, verified or made under oath, that requirement is met if the
advanced electronic signature of the person authorised to perform those acts is
attached to, incorporated in or logically associated with the electronic signature or
data message (s 18(1) of the ECT Act). This is relevant for admitted attorneys,
who are ex officio commissioners of oaths.

Where a law requires or permits a person to provide a certified copy of a

document and the document exists in paper or other physical form, that
requirement is met if an electronic copy of the document is certified to be a true

copy thereof and the certification is confirmed by the use of an advanced

electronic signature (s 18(3) of the ECT Act).

Transacting online

As stated above, most computer systems require some form of access control. Most
common is the username and password combination, which can be too risky when
business risks are high. Take for example conveyancing online, namely the
electronic communication of bond information (eg instruction, re-instruction, not taken
up (NTU), acknowledgment, milestone status, payment advice and rating files)
between the home loan divisions of banks and their panels of conveyancing
attorneys. In a conveyancing transaction one cannot run the very real risk of allowing
fraud to be committed as a result of unauthorised data access, data manipulation and
leakage, and misuse of access by unknown persons. The companies involved need
to know with a degree of certainty who is accessing their computer systems online,
and need for those persons to take responsibility for that which they do online with
them. It should also provide those companies with a level of confidence that only
personnel authorised to communicate electronically on the companys behalf can in
fact do so. Standard components of a sound security solution include authentication
that makes use of encryption technologies; that is, digital certificates. (Examples of
other components not dealt with here, but which are also important, include firewalls,
anti-virus scanners, content security management, intrusion-prevention systems,
virtual private networks and security-incident and event-manager tools).

Public and private key cryptography

Digital certificates, as already stated, make use of public and private key
cryptography. This means using standard Microsoft computer programme
functionality: Two data keys are generated on the digital certificate holders
computer. These keys are mathematically related to each other (sometimes
referred to as asymmetric encryption). One data key is called the private key and
the other the public key. It is mathematically infeasible, using the best computing
power available today, to break the algorithms used to create these keys. The
private key is required to be kept private and is not to be shared with anyone and
is usually stored in the browser of a computer or on a cryptographic memory stick.

The digital certificate is simply a piece of data that lists the public key and identifies
the individual holding the corresponding private key, and also identifies the
certification services provider that issued the digital certificate in the first place;
effectively vouching for the identity of the individual identified in the digital
certificate based on the identity verification criteria set out in its CPS; compliance
against which is audited from time to time by the Accreditation Authority.

When an electronic signature is created, it is only the public key and the digital
certificate that become embedded in the electronic document being signed, but
these can only be embedded if the corresponding private key is used. Therefore,
the recipient of an electronic document (eg e-mail message or PDF document) that
contains the authors public key and digital certificate should be assured that the
author of the document, (ie, the only person who exercises control over the
corresponding private key) is the same person identified in the digital certificate.
The document is then said to contain the authors electronic signature or advanced
electronic signature, as the case may be.

Problems arise if the private key becomes compromised as a stranger exercising

control over the private key of another can impersonate the person identified in the
corresponding digital certificate. It is therefore important to be diligent in retaining
control of the private key associated to the public key listed in the digital certificate,
including retaining control of any pass-phrase, pin or token used to activate the
private key and to prevent disclosure to any person not authorised to create ones
electronic signature.

Applying for a digital certificate

To be issued with a digital certificate that can be used to sign electronic documents
with an advanced electronic signature (and which can also be used to access
computer systems over the internet), a person needs to register his details with a
certification services provider that has been accredited by the Accreditation
Authority. This is an enrolment process that can be frustrating at times, but is
ultimately worth it when the risks sought to be addressed are properly mitigated.
An applicant (also referred to as a subscriber) typically needs to
complete a personal digital certificate application form;
sign a subscriber agreement; and
present the original and one copy of his identity document
(there might be other criteria that need to be adhered to, depending on which
certification services provider is selected).
In my experience, after verifying the applicants identity and completing certain
internal checks and controls, the certification services provider will issue a digital
certificate. The applicant will then be notified and directed as to how to download
the digital certificate and commence using it to access computer systems online.

Using a digital certificate

At present, in my experience, the Adobe Acrobat Professional computer programme

appears to have the most user-friendly functionality to sign an electronic document. It
is also possible to sign a Microsoft Word document. Once a document is ready for
signature, it is to be converted/saved to the Adobe PDF format. The step-by-step
functionality to signing the document is fairly easy to follow. This electronically signed
document can then be attached to an e-mail and forwarded to the intended recipient.
It can be encrypted as well if need be.

There are also online signing services, such as Signing Hub

(, that do away with the need to incur the cost of obtaining
an Adobe Acrobat Professional licence and which enable the uploading, sharing
and signature (using digital certificates) of documents, and which also assist in
managing costs of printing, faxing, couriers, postage, scanning, storage and

A word of caution

Digital certificates and the functionality to use digital certificates to create electronic
signatures have been around for years. It is important for the recipient of a signed
electronic document to carefully scrutinise the digital certificate to confirm whether
the signature created with that digital certificate qualifies as an advanced electronic
signature or is merely an electronic signature.
To do this, two important things must be verified
that the certification services provider that issued the digital certificate is in fact
accredited by the Accreditation Authority in terms of s 37 of the ECT Act
(accreditation confirmation can be viewed on the Accreditation Authoritys website
at or confirmed
telephonically on (012) 427 8070/8000); and
that the digital certificate makes reference to an advanced electronic signature.

As practitioners, it is imperative to keep pace with technological developments,
especially those that facilitate business transactions in an increasingly global
economy, without sacrificing the integrity of the process and the documents
involved. The advent of advanced electronic signatures and digital certificates,
together with other electronic security enhancements, enable both to the
advantage of the client.
See also 2005 (Dec) DR 24.

Grant Christianson BA LLB (UKZN) LLM (UJ) MAP (Wits) Post Grad Dip (UJ)
is group legal adviser and company secretary at Law Holdings (Pty) Ltd in